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Stiff Knee: Causes, Best Exercises, Recovery Period

Knee joint is one of the major joints, bearing weight during most of the activities. It is also prone to injuries and illnesses. Knee problems present in different ways; knee stiffness is one such complaint that needs proper evaluation.

Stiff knee is an inability to move the knee joint within normal range of motion; may be associated with feeling of heaviness.1 This is generally noted following injury, overuse or inflammation in the joint or surrounding tissues. Stiffness of knee can be for a short period or may last for long, depending on the underlying condition.

Stiff Knee

Trauma, joint related conditions or any disorder that causes restriction of knee movement and does not allow free movement of the joint, can contribute to knee stiffness. Also, a stiff knee limits the joint movements adding to the problem. It is necessary to understand the possible causes of stiff knee and take a rational approach towards the diagnosis and management of the condition.

Causes Of Stiff Knee

Conditions that disturb the normal structure of knee joint tend to make the knee and its surrounding tissues more sensitive. This can be caused due to:

  • Knee Stiffness Causes By Trauma – Injury to the knee for example, bone fractures, ligament injuries, meniscus injury or damage to the tendons and other tissues can cause restricted movement of the knee. The healing process, movement factors and further rehabilitation contribute to the progress of the knee joint after the injury.
  • Knee Stiffness Caused Due To Inflammation – Damage to the tissues, knee injuries and knee joint disorders can cause inflammation of the tissues, tendon, cartilage or bursa of knee.2 While inflammation can be acute as in case of acute trauma, sometimes, chronic inflammation can persist, causing discomfort and restriction of knee joint movement for a prolonged period.
  • Joint Conditions Causing Stiff Knee – There are many forms of arthritis that can affect the knee joint. For example, osteoarthritis is degenerative condition caused due to wear and tear of the knee and can even lead to chronic inflammation with acute exacerbations; rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disorder causing joint inflammation; septic arthritis occurs with an infection and needs immediate attention.
  • Others Medical Conditions That Can Cause Stiff Knee – Some infections like tuberculosis, Lyme disease, etc. and benign or malignant tumors too can damage the knee in varying degrees and affect the normal movement.

Stiff Knee After Sitting

While sitting, the muscles relax and there is usually no movement of the joint and the supporting structures. Also, the knee may remain in one position for a long time or bent. When attempting to move after some period of inactivity can cause strain on the muscles and the tissues, making movement of knee difficult and feel stiff. This can be due to degenerative condition or due to excess rubbing of joints from damaged cartilage. Regular exercises and learning appropriate ways of movement can help prevent stiff knee.

Stiff Knee After Surgery

Stiff Knee After Surgery

Post surgical phase may have longer periods of immobilization and the healing process usually lead to scar formation, which can cause stiffness of the knee. Initiation of early physiotherapy and controlled movements of the knee joint according to medical advice is important.

Stiff Knee After Running

While running is a good exercise, sometimes, the muscles of hips, thighs and legs get overworked. This can result in weakness and cause the knee ligaments and tissues to stiffen up. Appropriate warm up / cool down exercises and allowing sufficient time for healing of knee muscles and tissues after running can help prevent stiff knee after running.

Stiff Knee Syndrome

Stiff knee syndrome, also known as arthrofibrosis, is a condition encountered in some persons who may have their knee joint injured, operated or both. As a result of injury or surgery and the body’s response to it, there occurs scar formation in the area. This can cause the knee joint tissues and some surrounding structures to shrink leading to stiffness in the knee joint. There can be difficulty in movement and the ability to bend or straighten the knee completely may get affected. Appropriate rehabilitation and exercises can help to reduce discomfort and pain.

Best Exercises For Stiff Knee

As stiff knee mainly occurs due to limited movement of knee, performing therapeutic exercises that allow free movement of the knee joint is necessary. These not only help to improve range of motion but also help strengthen the muscles and tissues, increase flexibility, increase blood supply and reduce chances of injuries.

Exercises should be performed on both legs and body should be allowed to relax after exercising. It is advisable to seek medical opinion about capability to perform these exercises.

Exercises that promote knee strengthening, stretching and knee straightening are of great help. Some of the best exercises for stiff knee include:

Leg Lift Exercise For Stiff Knee

  • Lie On Your Back: Keep one knee raised with heel on the floor. Keep the other leg straight and raise it to a comfortable level. Hold for few seconds and put it down. Repeat the same with the other leg.
  • Sit on a chair: Raise your leg to straighten the knee, hold and bring it down.

Knee Bend Exercise For Stiff Knee

  • Prone Knee Bend Exercise For Knee Stiffness: Lie on stomach; bend knees towards the body, hold and straighten them again.
  • Standing Knee Bend Exercise With Chair Support For Stiff Knee: Stand supporting hands on a chair. Lift you leg from behind bending the knees, hold the ankles and try to touch the heels to the buttocks. Hold for few seconds and release.
  • Half Squat Exercise For Knee Stiffness: Stand straight with feet spread shoulder width apart. Now Slowly bend your knees, while bending your knees, lift your hands till your shoulder height such that your fingers are pointing straight up. Bend only as much as you are comfortable bending and then straighten your legs. Keep repeating this movement a couple of times.
  • Standing Knee Rotation Exercise For Relieving Stiffness Of The Knee: Stand straight with both your feet touching each other or bringing them as close as possible. Now rest your hands on top of the knee and rotate your knee in a circular motion (clockwise direction), while rotating you will have to bend your knees until one circular cycle is completed. Do this for 5-6 times or more and then rotate your knee in the opposite direction(anti clockwise direction), same number of times.
  • Knee-To-Chest Exercise For Stiff Knee: Lie down and try to bring one of your knee towards your chest with the help of your hands but you don’t have to exert too much pressure to get your knees towards your chest as focus here is to stretch and strengthen the knee with some light movement and not the hamstring muscles or back muscles. Repeat the same with the other leg.
  • Sitting Knee Bend Exercise For Stiff Knee: Sit on a chair; move the leg front and back while bending the knees when moving legs backwards.
  • Lie On The Back: Slide the heels towards your buttocks with the kneecap pointing towards the sky. Bring the heel as close as possible to your buttock and then relax by straightening your legs. Repeat a couple of times.

Stiff Knee Recovery Period

Recovering from knee stiffness depends on the cause of stiff knee and may take few weeks to months. But early physiotherapy and therapeutic exercises help to relieve stiffness and pain, improve range of motion and regain strength and flexibility. Activities should be resumed gradually according to the medical advice.


Also Read:

Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA
Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA
Written, Edited or Reviewed By: Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA Pain Assist Inc. This article does not provide medical advice. See disclaimer
Last Modified On:July 6, 2019

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